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Authors: Patrick McGuinness

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BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
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Sitting in Capsia that night I felt two things, two sensations that seemed at odds, but which took me to extremes of myself: a sense of the world closing in, tightening up, an almost physical sensation of claustration; and something else: exhilaration, a feeling for the possible, something expanding around me as I looked out at that empty square. It was as if the agoraphobia the new city was designed to induce, and the political system it existed to make concrete, was translating itself inwards, becoming an intensive inner space. In the way an atom could be split to open out a limitless vista of inverted energy, so now, in the midst of constraint and limitation, my life seemed full of possibility.

The first thing I learned, and I learned it from Leo, was to separate people from what they did. People existed in a realm apart from their actions: this was the only way to maintain friendships in a police state. When Rodica, the faculty secretary, opened our offices for the police to search our things and copy our papers, or the landlady let them into my flat, I said nothing. I knew they knew I knew, and it changed nothing.

For all the grotesqueness and brutality, it was normality that defined our relations: the human capacity to accommodate ourselves to our conditions, not the duplicity and corruption that underpinned them. This was also our greatest drawback – the routinisation of want, sorrow, repression, until they became invisible, until they numbed you even to atrocity.

‘Here’s the thing, right…’ Leo is telling me something – one of the few things – I already know about Bucharest: that it has the largest number of cinemas per head of the population in the world.

Leo judges that I have had enough for the night. Capsia is closing – it’s nearly midnight. He wants another drink, but I need to sleep and he is merciful and drives me home, slowly this time, stopping to point places out to me. At the InterContinental, the music is still going. Further on, the porch of the Hotel Athénée Palace, a more stately establishment, flickers in the gold of limousine headlamps. Leo drives down an avenue where every other building is a cinema: Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd.

‘No Chaplin,’ says Leo: ‘Chaplin’s banned –
The Great Dictator
, see? And no Marx Brothers either. Can’t work that one out, mind. You’d have thought…’

The Romanian censor has a fondness for those sad-faced Pierrot-types, Keaton and Lloyd, tragic/comic figures at odds with the world of things, Hamlets of the boom-and-bust West. Their comedy featured human beings crammed out of their own lives by objects in a world of surfeit, where material goods shut you out and marginalised you. Here, in Ceauşescu’s Romania, all is lack and absence, space unfilled, and the world of material surfeit as alien as the physics of
Star Trek
.

I climbed the stairs, not knowing where the light switches were, following the stairwell with my fingers in the dark. Once in the flat, I found my bed. Not having bothered to lay out sheets and pillows, I lay down on the bristly peasant blanket. My mouth was dry, my head already ached. I looked about me for a pillow, found none, and lay down in the spinning room. I had leapfrogged drunkenness and landed in the middle of a hangover.

In a new bed it is usually the unfamiliar sounds that keep you awake. Tonight it was the unfamiliar silence, a constant rustle just short of movement, tiny shifts in the stillness of Belanger’s flat. I woke up several times to piss or to drink rusty water from the bathroom tap. The phone rang, but I could not tell if I had dreamed it or if it was real. Each time I woke it had stopped. Pieces of the day gathered together in my mind: the plane, the glittering silverware of Capsia, the feral eyes of the Maître d’. I was tormented by the recollection of all the postings I might have had, all the cities I might be in: Barcelona, Budapest, Prague. Images of each, none of them visited, coalesced into one, and the place they formed in my mind was the Bucharest I had been in only a few hours: a heat-beaten brutalist maze whose walls and towers melted like sugar, and where the roots of trees erupted through the pavements.

I slept late and woke in sunlight so hot the blood bubbled inside my eyelids. My first morning was given over to paperwork at the Ministry of the Interior. The building dominated a roundabout large enough to outscale even the cranes and diggers that stalked the city’s streets like Meccano monsters. A few old buildings stood across the way, precarious for all their seniority. Were their foundations already tingling with intimations of demolition? In a few months they would be gone. From the outside, the ministry was boxy and grey, its only ornament a stucco Party crest. As an interior space, it was barely comprehensible. I remembered those posters by Escher that decorated student walls: physically impossible architecture and abyssal interiors; staircases that tapered into a void, or twisted back into themselves; doors that opened onto doors; balconies that overlooked the inside of another room that gave onto a balcony that overlooked the inside of another room…There were vast desks with nothing on them except for telephones, ashtrays and blank paper; voices loud enough to startle but too faint to understand; unattributable footsteps that got closer but never materialised into presence, then sudden arrivals which made no sound. The rustle of unseen activity was everywhere, like the scratching of insects in darkness. Kafka’s
The Castle
came to mind, a book I had not read but that fell into that category of literature that culture reads on your behalf and deposits somewhere inside you. So I imagined Kafka’s castle.

After an hour’s wait, a man appeared, blinking and smelling of basements. I filled in the forms, leaving only the ‘Next of kin’ box empty. I had looked forward to the ceremony of leaving it blank, the cleanness of it. ‘No kin,’ I said, ‘no next’; but he insisted I write something. There were no blank forms in this country. I wrote Leo’s name.

My photo was affixed to a small card and stamped: my pass to Bucharest’s diplomatic shops, special petrol stations and foreigners’ clubs.

Outside, clouds of dust billowed from roadworks across the avenue where men worked without helmets, shirtless in tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops. Soldiers sat and smoked on the kerbside, rifles across their knees, beside black vans with barred windows.

Militia were stationed every twenty yards. Last night they had looked sinister and immaterial, restless shades patrolling a missing population. Now they stood and swayed in the heat, badly dressed and bored and serving not as watchers but as reminders of a watchfulness beyond. As I walked, I sensed what was missing. No music came from any houses or shops; no radio, no one whistling or singing; there was nowhere to stop for a coffee or something to eat. No one stood about and talked and those who walked did so alone. The school playgrounds emitted no noise. A newspaper kiosk sold a brown drink called ‘Rocola’ – Romanian cola – cigarettes, and grey-green stubs of lottery tickets. It was hard to imagine what the prizes were.

Doubling back past my flat, I noticed a commotion. Drawing level with the crowd, I saw a building that gave away so little about itself that I had not seen it despite passing it three times already. Like Capsia, its windows were of frosted glass. This place too served the Party, I realised eventually: it was their discreet, hi-tech clinic, where the bosses and their families went for everything from abortions and gout to heart surgery and chemotherapy. Fronted by forceful iron gates, its marble steps led to a porch with a glass roof, elegant but inconspicuous. Drawn up in front were Party ambulances, white Mercedes estates with red stripes and blue revolving beacons.

Along the building’s grey facade, workmen in overalls were slopping white paint over some writing, watched by young men in suits. It was an unequal battle: the bright red letters pushed through their thin emulsion.
EPID

EMIA
, the word’s two halves separated by the gates’ black bars, along which someone had dragged the brush in a long bloody hyphen. The red gloss had dripped like something from a cheap horror film, a ghastly violent red in a place so grey. Passers-by hurried past, eyes safely down.

I saw that graffiti frequently in the months to come. And when it wasn’t there I saw its outline, not sure if I was imagining it or if, from under the layers of feeble paint, the letters kept searching out the light. The word was everywhere around me, but translated into flesh: the emaciated faces of the poor, the sick, the rag-pickers on the scrap heap of Romanian society. Days later, returning from work one Friday afternoon, I saw a young gypsy woman, exhausted and obviously in her last hours. Her clothes were colourful and a necklace of amber beads hung from her neck. A hand was cupped begging, the thumb crossed back over the open palm: that tiny detail sticks in my mind as the very symbol of destitution and hopelessness. I watched from the stalled tram as two soldiers stood over her where she sat on the pavement, piss runnelling down between her legs and over the kerb; snapping on white rubber gloves they slung her into a Dacia pickup. Her ghostly outline remained in sweat against the wall, where her body had wrung itself dry of moisture and winnowed itself to bone and air.

EPIDEMIA
: its name was marked out in the eyes of the thin savage young men who stalked the outskirts of the market, where produce was so scarce most of the stalls had packed up and gone by eight in the morning. Items I was used to buying in bags and seeing in heaps were, here, displayed like jewellery, laid one by one and side by side across the concrete tables: green peppers withered like old socks, gnarled carrots, a few lettuces. The only things that seemed in plentiful supply were pickles: pickled vegetables and roots that looked like brains in jars, organs and appendices suspended in formaldehyde, waiting for the jolt of current that would turn them into living limbs, a human body. But what sort of electricity would it take to transform these bowed and broken dollpeople into revolutionaries?

Why didn’t I – why did none of us – see it coming? Was it because it really wasn’t ever going to come until it came? Maybe. But Leo had seemed to know. ‘Hang on tight or get out quick,’ he’d say, arching his eyebrows and pointing at something behind or to the side of you: ‘Which will it be?’

Three

Someone arriving in a new place registers everything except what is important. The air itself is sprung tight, the slightest detail expansive with meaning: the smell of those corridors, an amalgam of cigarettes, floor polish and sweat brought to pungency by bad ventilation; the walls thickly painted in grey eggshell; the red linoleum floor ripped and scuffed past repairing; the cork boards with staples and drawing pins clinging to shreds of paper; torn corners of posters; out-of-date notices twisting in the draft… all that still seems to me, in its mundanity and disconnection, more real (
more
real?) than what came later: the killings and the mobs, the shooting and the anarchy. That’s because in my mind it’s these details that bear the weight of all the rest – as if all that was extreme and terrifying was lying dormant, always just a thought away, one wrong turning of the mind.

That first day I arrived at the university and was shown to my office by an old porter. A plastic badge identified him as Micu. He wore grey trousers and a blue tunic decked with medals and tassels. His chest was a wall of decorations in inverse proportion to his status, or at any rate his status now. I couldn’t tell if he had been a distinguished soldier, a productive factory hand, or simply someone who had reached an age which in Romania was itself an achievement. If the average life expectancy continued to fall at the rate it had in the last decade, then Micu deserved all his medals. He had to be eighty at least. The government gave out so many medals and certificates – for heroic mothers (those who had five or more children), heroic workers (those who worked three Sundays in four), or heroic tillers of the soil – that it was the people without one who really stood out.

Micu moved fast, despite a limp that gave him the air of dodging invisible but regular obstacles. A soggy, filterless cigarette adhered to his lower lip with a gluey mix of saliva and tar. His eyes were watery and alert. Handing me the key, he pointed at Belanger’s nameplate on the door, and made screwdriving gestures to mime out its imminent removal and replacement. This was the nearest it ever came to being removed and replaced.

An old typewriter lay on the table. Tired posters for study trips which none of the students would ever make hung on the wall with dried-out sellotape, along with pictures of the obligatory
Brit-lit
icons, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf. Stuck to the phone receiver was a yellow Post-it note with some numbers, all local but without corresponding names. I picked it off and stuck it to the window while I tried the line. Dead.

Next door, an electric typewriter hammered fast, backtracking and winding forward in aggressive spurts. Then came a crumpling of paper fast followed by the ping of the balled missile hitting the wastebin’s rim and scuttering along the floor. A chain of expletives in English and Romanian came next, then the sound of the roller cranking in another sheet. Leo at work, typing the way he drove.

My first call was to the head of department, Professor Ionescu, a round-faced, affable man who hid his ruthless Party powerbroking under a patina of absent-mindedness. His secretary, Rodica Aurelian, three months into her first pregnancy, looked nervy and underfed, her eyes always fighting back tears. She smiled and welcomed me in, doing what she could to put me at my ease.

An expert purger, it was Ionescu who oversaw the mass sackings two years ago, when the English department was thoroughly ‘renewed’. Its former head, a famous Marxist scholar, was now a laboratory assistant in the chemistry faculty. Ex-professors haunted the university buildings, minimum-wage ghosts who dusted their old lecture rooms or polished floorboards on all fours as their ex-colleagues stepped over them. The old joke, that it was in the janitorial strata of Romania’s universities that you found the real intellectuals, was, like all good communist bloc jokes, less an exaggeration of reality than a shortcut to it.

BOOK: The Last Hundred Days
2.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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